Archive for the ‘Iraq – Kurds’ category

The Kurdish test

October 26, 2017

The Kurdish test, Israel Hayom, Clifford D. May, October 26, 2017

It’s essential that Trump make clear that further threats to the security and integrity of the Kurdish region will not be countenanced, and that any advance on Erbil will be met with stiff sanctions and, if necessary, force. The U.S. should insist that all military operations cease immediately and that negotiations between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders commence under American auspices.

Anything less will be interpreted as acquiescence to the Islamic republic’s drive to impose its brand of jihadism and Islamism on its neighbors and, in due time, far beyond.

To make America great again requires demonstrating that America is the best friend and the worst enemy any nation can have. During the Obama years, the opposite seemed to be the case. If aligning with the U.S. comes to be viewed as a chump’s game no matter who is in the White House, the U.S. will end up with no friends. It will have a growing list of emboldened enemies instead.

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In a just world, the Kurds would have a state of their own. Their culture is ancient. They speak a distinctive language. They have a homeland, Kurdistan, ruled for centuries by Arabs, Turks and Persians – foreigners and oppressors all.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the victorious British and French created new Arab nation-states and put in motion a process that would lead to the restoration of a Jewish nation-state. But the Kurds – they got nothing.

In 1992 following the Gulf War, the U.S., along with Britain and France, set up a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The goal was to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein whose genocidal war against the Kurds included a chemical weapons attack in the Kurdish city of Halabja four years earlier.

When Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurds greeted them as liberators. The Kurdistan Regional Government began to diligently nation-build, establishing the institutions and infrastructure necessary for independent statehood.

I don’t mean to oversell: The KRG has not become a democracy. Corruption is reportedly rampant – this is still the Middle East. Kurdish leaders, divided among themselves, have made mistakes.

Most recently, they held a referendum on independence. The results were no surprise. More than nine out of 10 Kurds want self-determination. The government in Baghdad won’t let them go without a fight. And the U.S., which is invested in a unitary Iraq, doesn’t want them to leave. Predictably, the referendum provoked the rulers of Turkey and Iran, who are adamant that their Kurdish subjects not get any big ideas.

Still, Kurdish society is open and tolerant. Kurdish schools actually educate young people. Nowhere in the so-called Muslim world will you find a people more pro-American. The Kurdish peshmerga forces have long been a reliable U.S. partner. In recent days, they have often – and bravely – taken point against Islamic State.

And now the Kurds are imperiled. Here’s what’s happened: On Oct. 13, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his Iran strategy. He declined to recertify the nuclear arms deal concluded by his predecessor. Among the reasons: Iran’s compliance cannot be verified so long as international inspectors are barred from the regime’s military facilities.

The president also is unwilling to turn a blind eye to Iran’s continuing development of missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads, the “sunset” clauses that legitimize the mullah’s nuclear weapons program over time, and the terrorism that those mullahs sponsor. Notably, he designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.

The Iranian response has been more than merely rhetorical. On Oct. 16, Iraqi forces, over which Iran’s rulers now exercise considerable influence, and Shia militias, many of them Iranian-backed, drove Kurdish troops out of oil-rich Kirkuk. According to credible reports, Maj. Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of foreign operations for the IRGC, was on hand to personally coordinate the operation.

Though Kirkuk is beyond the de facto borders of the KRG, Kurds have long viewed it as the Jerusalem of their homeland. It was a Kurdish-majority city until the Saddam regime determined to “Arabize” it, not least through population transfers.

In 2014, however, when Islamic State was on the march, Iraqi government forces abandoned Kirkuk. The peshmerga quickly filled the vacuum, defending the city and holding it ever since.

By orchestrating the taking of Kirkuk, Iran’s rulers are testing Trump. They are betting that, despite the tough talk, he won’t have the stomach to do what is necessary to frustrate their neo-imperialist ambitions.

In the end, they think he will attempt to appease and accommodate them as did former President Barack Obama. Trump reinforced that conviction when, in response to the fighting in Kirkuk, he said his administration was “not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.”

Over the weekend, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Parliament’s director general for international affairs, tweeted that Iraqi government troops “will return Erbil to the united Iraq easier than Kirkuk, just within minutes.” Erbil is the capital of the KRG. On Tuesday, Shia militias launched an offensive against Kurdish troops near the Turkish frontier.

It’s essential that Trump make clear that further threats to the security and integrity of the Kurdish region will not be countenanced, and that any advance on Erbil will be met with stiff sanctions and, if necessary, force. The U.S. should insist that all military operations cease immediately and that negotiations between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders commence under American auspices.

Anything less will be interpreted as acquiescence to the Islamic republic’s drive to impose its brand of jihadism and Islamism on its neighbors and, in due time, far beyond.

To make America great again requires demonstrating that America is the best friend and the worst enemy any nation can have. During the Obama years, the opposite seemed to be the case. If aligning with the U.S. comes to be viewed as a chump’s game no matter who is in the White House, the U.S. will end up with no friends. It will have a growing list of emboldened enemies instead.

In a just world, Iran’s theocrats would have appreciated the fact that Obama reached out to them in a spirit of respect and reconciliation. In a just world, skilled diplomats would devise elegant power-sharing formulas that all sides would embrace in the interest of peace and stability. In a just world, the Kurds would have a right to self-determination.

But we don’t live in a just world. By now, that should be glaringly obvious.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The ‎Washington Times.‎

Iraqi forces recapture contentious Kirkuk in overnight offensive

October 16, 2017

Iraqi forces recapture contentious Kirkuk in overnight offensive, Long War Journal, October 16, 2017

The clashes in Kirkuk have exposed rifts between Iraqi Kurdistan’s rival political parties: the Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PUK reportedly permitted Baghdad to advance into Kirkuk, despite KDP dissent. The PUK and the Talabani family receive support from Iran, raising suspicion about a potential backroom deal to hand over the city to Iranian-aligned forces and undermine the KDP. Prominent Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, have visited Iraqi Kurdistan recently to pay respects to Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq and Talabani family patriarch. The PUK’s rival, the KDP, received the lionshare of credit for ushering in the Kurdish referendum.

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Iraqi troops from the US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service, backed by Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Forces, seized control of the city of Kirkuk from the Kurdish Regional Government today in a rapid offensive launched within the last 24 hours. The Iraqi government quickly capitalized on its victory against the Islamic State in the adjacent city of Hawija and turned its energy on the secessionist Kurds in Kirkuk. The quick strike exposed deep fault lines existing within the anti-Islamic State coalition and Kurdish politics.

The United States has trained and equipped both Kurdish and Iraqi forces as part of the ongoing anti-Islamic State operation. The military operation followed heightened tensions resulting from the Sept. 25 Kurdish independence referendum. It also followed President Trump’s announcement of a new Iran strategy on Friday.

Kirkuk, an economically significant city in northern Iraq with more than one million residents, has been a political and sectarian hotspot since the US ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Kurdish forces have controlled Kirkuk since the summer of 2014, when the Iraqi military fled northern Iraq following the Islamic State’s invasion. Kirkuk, which is outside of the established borders of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, is a major oil producing region in Iraq.

Kirkuk has also been a major sectarian faultline in Iraq, with Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Sunni Arabs jockeying for influence in the government.

The Government of Iraq’s War Media Cell, the outlet which has been reporting on the anti-Islamic State fight, has been releasing updates on the Kirkuk offensive. At around noon local time, the War Media Cell reported that Iraqi forces controlled the Kirkuk Airport, also known as K-1. In its most recent post, the War Media Cell reported that Iraqi forces control a number of key points in Kirkuk, including the industrial neighborhood and North Oil Company, as well as a power plant, a refinery, and a police station.

Before Iraqi troops entered Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga forces clashed with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) south of the city. The Kurdistan Regional Government claimed Peshmerga forces “destroyed at least five US Humvees used by [the] PMF” as it advanced south and southwest of the city.

The Iraqi government has relied on the PMF, a grouping of militias most of which are backed by Iran, for support in its fight against the Islamic State. Iranian-linked militias have played a key role in liberating cities such as Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Baiji, and most recently Hawija, from Islamic State rule. The Iraqi government has institutionalized the PMF as an official military arm. Its top leaders are known Iranian proxies, as are some of its largest and most capable militias.

The United States has been reticent to criticize or mitigate the rise of the Iranian-backed PMF within Iraqi security infrastructure due to the prioritization of the anti-Islamic State fight. In some cases, the US even appears to be praising them. In the most recent Operation Inherent Resolve press briefing, Maj. Gen. Robert White, the ground commander of coalition forces involved in Iraq, described the PMF as “the fourth cohort of the ISF that are sanctioned by the government of Iraq. And so they have been an integral part of the successes that the Iraqi Security Forces have had to date.”

The US has continued to emphasize the precedence of the anti-Islamic State fight. CENTCOM dismissed the engagement in Kirkuk as a “misunderstanding.” Maj. Gen. White encouraged dialogue and a refocus on “the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.” The Islamic State’s territorial control has waned over the past year, but the self-declared caliphate retrains strategic locations in the Euphrates River Valley.

The clashes in Kirkuk have exposed rifts between Iraqi Kurdistan’s rival political parties: the Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PUK reportedly permitted Baghdad to advance into Kirkuk, despite KDP dissent. The PUK and the Talabani family receive support from Iran, raising suspicion about a potential backroom deal to hand over the city to Iranian-aligned forces and undermine the KDP. Prominent Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, have visited Iraqi Kurdistan recently to pay respects to Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq and Talabani family patriarch. The PUK’s rival, the KDP, received the lionshare of credit for ushering in the Kurdish referendum.

Iranian-supported militias have praised the Peshmerga surrender, specifically crediting the PUK. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a prominent Shiite militia complicit in the killing of American soldiers, released a statement praising the PUK for taking the “responsible position” and for not succumbing to the “personal and familial interests of the separatists.”

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

US threatens to shoot down any Iraqi warplane targeting Kurds

October 16, 2017

US threatens to shoot down any Iraqi warplane targeting Kurds, DEBKAfile, October 16, 2017

Iraqi and Kurdish sources reported Monday that the US had warned the Al-Abadi government against deploying the Iraqi air force against Kurdish targets in the fighting which erupted around the oil town of Kirkuk Monday. The US Air Force would shoot the Iraqi planes down, Baghdad was warned. The US also informed the Iraqi government that its military offensive against the Kurds over Kirkuk constituted a flagrant violation of Clause 9 of the Iraqi constitution, as well as a breach of Iraqi-US agreements which prohibit the use of military force for resolving internal political disputes.

Iran-backed Iraqi ultimatum to Kurds to leave Kirkuk. First test for Trump’s threat to Rev Guards

October 14, 2017

Iran-backed Iraqi ultimatum to Kurds to leave Kirkuk. First test for Trump’s threat to Rev Guards, DEBKAfile, October 14, 2017

After Trump declared that the entire IRGC was guilty of terrorism, including all its agents and proxies – the Iraqi PMU militia would lay itself open to the definition of terrorists for attacking Kurdish forces, who are America’s frontline military ally in the war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

All eyes in the Middle East are watching to see how the Trump administration responds to such an attack if it takes place. Its non-response would be interpreted by Tehran as a license for its IRPG to keep going.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar Al-Abadi Saturday night, Oct. 14, gave the Kurdish Peshmerga an ultimatum to surrender the positions in the Kirkuk oil region they have held since pushing ISIS out three years ago, and also cancel the Kurdish Republic’s Sept. 25 independence vote.

The Kurdish troops were given until early Sunday to comply with those demands, in the face of heavily armed troops of the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilization Force (PMU), an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, massed around Kirkuk.

DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources reveal exclusively that the Iraqi prime minister issued this ultimatum under heavy pressure from al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He placed the PMU at Abadi’s disposal and any arms he might need for an operation to fight the Kurds, should they defy the ultimatum. They stand against thousands of The KRG fighters deployed around Kirkuk.

Over the weekend, both sides beefed up their military strength in and around Iraq’s northern oil city. Iraq has deployed to Kirkuk the PMU as well as special operations units to face a Peshmerga force of 9,000 fighters.

Just hours before the deadline, a Peshmerga commander on the western front said Kurdish fighters had “taken all the necessary measures” and were “ready for a confrontation” if necessary.

American forces, who maintain a small military team in Kirkuk for carrying messages between the opposing camps, proposed a number of compromises, but they were all rejected by the Iraqi prime minister.

Washington also notified Baghdad that the US would not tolerate military aggression against Irbil, capital of the KRG, Dohuk or Sulaymaniyah, or military incursions of Kirkuk, only a small party of civilian officials.

It is not clear whether Abadi will heed Washington’s directives. However, DEBKAfile’s sources stress that President Donald Trump’s speech Friday night, laying out a new, tough strategy for Iran and its Revolutionary Guards,  lent a potential military clash over Kirkuk a new perspective beyond a local conflict.

After Trump declared that the entire IRGC was guilty of terrorism, including all its agents and proxies – the Iraqi PMU militia would lay itself open to the definition of terrorists for attacking Kurdish forces, who are America’s frontline military ally in the war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

All eyes in the Middle East are watching to see how the Trump administration responds to such an attack if it takes place. Its non-response would be interpreted by Tehran as a license for its IRPG to keep going.

Iran, Turkey, & Iraq move to “crush” Kurds, Christians

October 14, 2017

Iran, Turkey, & Iraq move to “crush” Kurds, Christians, Rebel Media via YouTube, October 14, 2017

Support for a United Iraq Plays into the Hands of ISIS and Iran

September 26, 2017

Support for a United Iraq Plays into the Hands of ISIS and Iran, Front Page Magazine, Daniel Greenfield, September 26, 2017

(How would Secretary Tillerson respond to Greenfield’s highlighted question about “catering to the whims of our Islamist enemies anyway?” — DM)

Why is the State Department in the business of catering to the whims of our Islamist enemies anyway?

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The State Department had a very predictable reaction to the Kurdish referendum.

The United States is deeply disappointed that the Kurdistan Regional Government decided to conduct today a unilateral referendum on independence, including in areas outside of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region…

The unilateral referendum will greatly complicate the Kurdistan Regional Government’s relationship with both the Government of Iraq and neighboring states. The fight against ISIS is not over, and extremist groups are seeking to exploit instability and discord. We believe all sides should engage constructively in a dialogue to improve the future of all Iraqis. The United States opposes violence and unilateral moves by any party to alter boundaries.

The United States supports a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq and will continue to seek opportunities to assist Iraqis to fulfill their aspirations within the framework of the constitution.

1. The Iraqi constitution is a joke. Much like Iraqi democracy.

2. Iraqi federalism doesn’t exist in Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s mostly independent already.

3. Iraqi federalism is what created the latest incarnation of ISIS. Trying to uphold a united Iraq to fight ISIS is the same dumb, bankrupt foreign policy that made this mess under Bush and Obama.

A “united Iraq” means letting Iran’s Shiite puppets in Baghdad run the country. The Sunnis, unsurprisingly opt out, Al Qaeda, in some form or another, comes calling. And that’s how we ended up with ISIS. And then we have to choose between Iran and ISIS. Unfortunately, as the Hezbollah-ISIS convoy and the 9/11 report shows, they also have a secret relationship.

So it’s Catch 22. Either way the terrorists win and we lose.

The only “solution” is to support de facto partition of Iraq along demographic lines. It won’t be easy or smooth, but it’s going to keep happening in the form of outbreaks of violence anyway until it’s finally realized. Iraq, like Syria, is an imaginary country created by Western powers.

And that means letting the Kurds, who are the closest thing to a success story in Iraq, go their own way.

Iran and ISIS and Turkey will be most unhappy. Good.

Why is the State Department in the business of catering to the whims of our Islamist enemies anyway?

Kurdistan Independence Referendum and Why It Matters so Much in the Fight Against Radical Islam

April 19, 2017

Kurdistan Independence Referendum and Why It Matters so Much in the Fight Against Radical Islam, Clarion ProjectJennifer Breedon, April 19, 2017

Iraqi Kurdish students attend the first day of the new school year in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 10, 2014.  AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Most Kurds are Muslim, but reject religious rule in favor of secular governance so that all religious people and ethnic minorities can have fair and equal representation. The Kurds have adopted secular lifestyles seen just by visiting the capitol city of Erbil where you’ll hear American music, see a booming economy, or have conversations about new business enterprises.  If you’re lucky, you may run into the Erbil Men’s Club. Kurds don’t identify as “Sunni” or “Shia” at the outset. While they will openly say what religion they practice, they refuse to allow their identity to be encompassed in the sectarian strife they’ve witnessed throughout the Middle East. They want no form of oppressive sharia law in their governance to promote the rights of women and minorities. In fact, Kurdish government mandates that 30% of Parliament members be women. I witnessed that firsthand and it looks a lot like the United States: churches, mosques, and synagogues side-by-side with equal numbers and mutual respect between all religious leaders.

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The recent rejuvenated referendum on Kurdistan Independence will likely draw a few questions from people. Namely (1) What does “Statehood” mean and what is required to gain it? (2) Why does an independent Kurdistan really matter? And (3) Is it really helpful to have another independent government in the Middle East in an already volatile area?

What does “Statehood” mean and what is required to gain it?

Becoming a state provides autonomy and self-determination that allow a government to aid their people, provide security to their region, build infrastructure, among many other things. Even autonomous regions within a state are subject to the official national government decisions and therefore cannot enter into alliances with potential allies. In this situation, it matters for the United States because the modern Kurds and the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq are extremely pro-America and pro-democratic freedoms.  In an age where the Middle East is constantly laced with sectarian violence, the Kurds are a secular governing force that rejects extremism. However, since it is merely an “autonomous” region of Iraq, they are subject to alliances of the Iraqi government and cannot be a strength of secular democratic governance that is so desperately needed throughout the Middle East.

The Montevideo Convention of 1933 outlined the four main requirement of statehood. Those are: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, the capacity to enter into foreign relations with other states. However, meeting the Montevideo requirements doesn’t automatically gain independent statehood today. That requires recognition by the international community (and recently done via the United Nations).

The Kurdish region was officially recognized as semiautonomous in the 2005 Iraqi constitution following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Today, that region and the territories closest to it have become the only safe zone for refugees and IDPs fleeing from the wrath of ISIL in Iraq.

Why does an independent Kurdistan state really matter?

When I was meeting with Kurdish government officials in January this year, I asked this very question to Dr. Dindar Zebari, a top official in the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Dr Zebari: “…you cannot have a success story within a failure story [Iraq]. Sectarian violence in the Middle East-and especially Iraq-will continue. There is a problem and that’s religious engagement in government and it holds all of humanity back: the case of Shia vs. Sunni. Yazidi, Christian and other minority communities will be under religious extremist governments because the ethnic cleansing under these governments will never stop. Kurdistan has been successful as an accepting autonomous region and our government has never and will never turn away minorities. Our constitution is based on individual human rights and not religious identity.

JB: What makes Kurdistan as a state unique in this region?

Dr. Zebari: We are unique in that we already have self-determination and friendly relations with many other governments. The only forces that have EQUALLY protected all the religious minorities since ISIS began their violence, are the Peshmerga forces. We have already delivered more for the rights of minorities and protecting from ISIS than many other independent states in this region even though we aren’t yet a recognized nation-state.

According to the CIA World Factbookthere has been voluntary relocation of many Christian families to northern Iraq” since the rise of ISIS. An article in the Council for Foreign Relations noted in 2015 that, “even while asserting their autonomy, Iraqi Kurds are still considered by policymakers as the ‘glue’ that holds [Iraq] together amid sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Arabs.

Today, almost all the U.N. refugee areas for ISIS victims are in or near the Kurdish region because it has been secured by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. However, since the Kurds are not an independent nation-state, they are not privy to U.N. practices in refugee camps, nor are they invited to talks on the humanitarian situation in the region. Additionally, when money is sent to the “refugees” and IDPs living in camps in the Kurdish region, none of that money goes to the Kurdish Regional Government because they are not a recognized state. The money is either given directly to the United Nations OR the “recognized” government of Iraq in Baghdad.  Considering that Iraqis have fled Baghdad for safety in Erbil and the Kurdish region, this seems to make very little sense in helping those that need it most and supporting the forces protecting the victims.

Jennifer Salcido, a humanitarian filmmaker in Iraqi Kurdistan, recently met with a small group of Assyrian Christians. When she asked them why they didn’t go to Baghdad for safety from ISIS, they responded, “Because they will murder us in Baghdad. We are much safer in Erbil [Kurdistan region capital].

Is it really helpful to have another independent government in an already volatile Middle East region?

The answer is 100% yes if that independent government is friendly to the United States, Israel, and secular governance including human rights and not Islamist sharia implementation. The Kurds have no sharia laws or desire to impose Islamist laws. They’ve been persecuted by Islamist governments for far too long and the modern Kurdish parties, such as the KDP, have adopted a secular democratic constitution.

Most Kurds are Muslim, but reject religious rule in favor of secular governance so that all religious people and ethnic minorities can have fair and equal representation. The Kurds have adopted secular lifestyles seen just by visiting the capitol city of Erbil where you’ll hear American music, see a booming economy, or have conversations about new business enterprises.  If you’re lucky, you may run into the Erbil Men’s Club. Kurds don’t identify as “Sunni” or “Shia” at the outset. While they will openly say what religion they practice, they refuse to allow their identity to be encompassed in the sectarian strife they’ve witnessed throughout the Middle East. They want no form of oppressive sharia law in their governance to promote the rights of women and minorities. In fact, Kurdish government mandates that 30% of Parliament members be women. I witnessed that firsthand and it looks a lot like the United States: churches, mosques, and synagogues side-by-side with equal numbers and mutual respect between all religious leaders.

The issues in the Middle East come down to proxy wars and one important differentiation: Does the country have a theocracy or a secular government that governs the people with basic freedoms of life and liberty to freely worship? The Kurdish government maintains the latter and thus makes their application for statehood a necessary element in upholding human rights and providing for a more stable and violence-free Middle East.